Women human rights defenders in Afghanistan who face mounting violence - including threats, sexual assault and assassinations- are being abandoned by their own government despite the significant gains they have fought to achieve, Amnesty International said in a new report.
Their Lives On The Line documents how champions for the rights of women and girls, including doctors, teachers, lawyers, police and journalists as well as activists have been targeted not just by the Taliban but by warlords and government officials as well. Laws meant to support them are poorly implemented, if at all, while the international community is doing far too little to ease their plight.
Rights defenders have suffered car bombings, grenade attacks on homes, killing of family members and targeted assassinations. Many continue their work despite suffering multiple attacks, in the full knowledge that no action will be taken against the perpetrators.
There has been significant international investment to support Afghan women, including efforts to strengthen women’s rights. But too much of it has been piecemeal and ad hoc, and much of the aid money is drying up.
While Taliban are responsible for the majority of attacks against women defenders, government officials or powerful local commanders with the authorities’ backing are increasingly implicated in violence and threats against women.
As one woman defender explained: “The threats now come from all sides: it’s difficult to identify the enemies. They could be family, security agencies, Taliban, politicians.”
Based on interviews with more than 50 women defenders and their family members across the country, Amnesty International found a consistent pattern of authorities ignoring or refusing to take seriously threats against women. Few investigations were carried out, while prosecutions and convictions were even rarer. In many cases, women defenders who reported violence or attacks were put at further risk, facing stigmatization or threats simply for speaking out.
No woman in public life is safe –those facing threats and violence range from rights activists, politicians, lawyers, journalists, teachers. Even women in the police force are under threat, where sexual harassment and bullying is rife and almost always goes unpunished.
In eastern Laghman province, Dr Shah Bibi is the director of the Department of Women’s Affairs, and continues her work to strengthen women’s rights despite multiple death threats having forced her to move to a different province.
“Every day when I leave home I think that I will not return alive and my children are as scared as I am about a possible Taliban attack against me.”
Dr Bibi’s two predecessors –Najia Sediqi and Hanifa Safi –were killed within six months of each other in 2012, by gunmen in broad daylight and in a car bombing respectively. In a familiar story, relatives told Amnesty International how regular death threats had been met with no response by authorities, despite the women’s repeated pleas for protection. No one has been held responsible for their killings.
Despite the existence of a legal framework to protect women in Afghanistan –much of it thanks to tireless campaigning by women’s rights activists themselves –laws are often badly enforced and remain mere paper promises.
The landmark Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law, passed in 2009, remains unevenly enforced and has only led to a limited number of convictions. Amnesty International’s investigation found that a lack of political will on the part of Afghan authorities means that government bodies and officials charged with protecting women are under-resourced and lack the support to carry out their work.
Added to this is a common acceptance of violence against women and girls as a “normal” part of life, and limits to their ability to participate freely in public life.
Amnesty International made a number of calls in the report. Protection, especially for those in rural areas, is essential; there must be no discrimination in the level of protection; there must be prosecutions, using appropriate legislation. The culture of harassment in public institutions must be addressed, and the authorities must challenge attitudes which lead to abuses.
While international governments have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into projects supporting women’s rights since 2001, the approach has not gone far enough. Projects have too often focused on short-term gains, and been implemented without consulting women’s activists themselves.
With the international troop withdrawal near completion, even these fragile gains are under threat.
The European Union Plus countries (EU plus additional diplomatic missions) has recently launched a program that will, once operational, offer emergency protection and ongoing monitoring for rights defenders. However, the strategy has yet to be tested, and it remains to be seen how successfully it will be implemented.